Everything You Need to Know About Team Planning

New to team planning? Creating a team plan is a crucial exercise for the success of your team and business as a whole. Here's all you need to know to get started.
Libby Marks

Team planning helps organizations realize key commercial and financial benefits - supporting their strategic objectives and goals for growth. This is achieved through a well-rounded team planning process.

But what is team planning, how do you do it, and why is it a predictor of a high-performing team? Let's find out!

What is team planning?

Team planning is the process of setting strategic and operational plans for your team for the year. It involves strategically aligning your team's work to the overall direction of travel for the business. It provides a clear roadmap to success by identifying the strategic objectives for your team and breaking these down into specific projects, goals, and tasks. Instead of focusing solely on day-to-day tasks, team planning allows us to zoom out and see the bigger picture.

In an IT services firm, team planning can be used to ensure that everyone is working in sync toward common goals. The process involves setting long-term goals, medium-term goals, and short-term goals with associated timeframes. For example, one long-term goal might be to improve customer service levels within six months; another medium-term goal might be to implement a new CRM system to do this within two months; and a short-term goal could be to hire a new employee who has experience using this type of software within one month.

This type of planning ensures that everyone in your team has a clear understanding of what they need to do in order to succeed. It also helps you demonstrate what needs are being met by your team and how your work contributes to a successful business.

Why create a team plan?

Creating a team plan provides focus and strategic alignment for your team. It ensures that every activity your team engages in moves the needle for your business.

It takes the guesswork out of project planning by making it easy to identify priorities and assign the resources required. And, by looking ahead, helps with capacity planning - knowing whether you have the resources to deliver business priorities or if you need to recruit new talent.

Some organizations don't engage in team planning because they think it is repetitive and time-consuming. You've got the business strategy to work from, so why do you need to spend time getting more granular...?

Sadly, this is a false economy. Without a team plan, the 'big picture' is too big. Without team-level guidance, your team might be working on the wrong things at the wrong time and not even realize it.

Do we need a team plan?

Every team - regardless of size or sector - needs a plan. A team plan is the difference between HOPING to hit your targets and ACTUALLY achieving them. It's an essential tool if you aspire to be a high-performing team.

If you're wondering whether your team needs a plan, ask them these key questions:

  • Do you know what the company wants to achieve this year?
  • Do you know how our team contributes to those objectives?
  • Do you know how you individually contribute to those objectives?
  • Are you clear what success looks like for the team and you personally?

If they can't answer them, you need to create a team plan ASAP!

Why? Because without a team plan, your team members don't fully understand what they need to do, when or why they need to do it, and whether they've done it well.

This can reduce team productivity, cohesion, and motivation. For example:

  • Prioritizing the wrong tasks because they don't fully appreciate when and why certain deliverables are needed
  • Focusing on personal - rather than team - priorities and accidentally delaying key projects
  • Lacking motivation because they don't understand their important contribution to business success
  • Getting disheartened by lack of feedback on performance against KPIs

What are the benefits of team planning?

There are lots of benefits to team planning - for the business, the team, and individuals. Engage in team planning and you'll realize solid commercial and financial benefits, as well as have a happier and more cohesive team.

Moving the needle for your business

Team planning aligns your work to business strategy, which means your team is actively contributing to business success and growth. Teams with a plan are more likely to be high performers that can demonstrate their value to the business.

Team planning involves planning projects in advance and assigning the most appropriate team members. That's a process called resource planning and it's proven to improve productivity and reduce inefficiency - all of which means you're working smarter, faster, and more cost-effectively.

Developing your team

Team planning can help with team development and reduce disruptive staff churn.

It provides a platform for individuals to use their unique strengths and be recognized for their contribution. It also helps identify opportunities for skill development within your team, so you're fit-for-purpose and future-proof. And it makes sure your team isn't under- or over-utilized - a process called resource optimization - that makes the best use of your team without causing them burnout.

Team planning also helps with cohesion by exploring the team's purpose, values, and how they work together rather than as individuals. 

Collectively, these benefits add up to better staff performance and retention, because when team members feel engaged and empowered, they'll deliver great work and stick around. According to payroll software company, Gusto, 37% of employees say ‘working with a great team’ is their primary reason for staying with their employer. 

Proactively identifying problems

Team planning lets you see potential problems - like resource shortages, clashes, or bottlenecks - in advance and plan to mitigate against them. It's the ultimate example of 'forewarned is forearmed'.

It also supports capacity planning, a key strategic process that identifies whether your organization has the resources needed for its portfolio of projects. A comprehensive team plan also gives you something to take to senior management to request more resources if you're likely to be understaffed.

What's the difference between team strategy planning and team execution planning?

A strategic team plan clarifies what a team needs to achieve to contribute to their organization's overall objectives. An execution plan provides step-by-step guidance on what the team needs to do to achieve this.

There's a big difference between setting goals and achieving them. Creating a team plan that includes both strategic direction and execution planning ensures your team delivers what you say they will.

Make sure your strategy and execution plans are closely aligned. If there's a gap between your strategic team plan and your execution plan, things will fall down it.

An execution plan defines what needs doing, when, and who by. It helps provide an overview of interdependencies so each individual team member can see how their work fits into the whole. It's about getting everyone on the same page.

It also overcomes an often unspoken issue in the workplace - people not knowing what they need to do and being too embarrassed to ask. Never assume that your team members will automatically understand how to translate high-level objectives into meaningful task-based plans. Use team planning to give them a clear roadmap to personal and organizational success.

What is the team planning process?

Team planning comprises the following steps:

  1. Strategic alignment - This is where the team leader talks to senior management to understand how their team fits into the overall business strategy for the year. They will discuss the direction of travel for the business as a whole and what the business hopes to achieve in the next twelve months. Then discuss the contribution that their team needs to make, for the business to succeed in its objectives.
  2. Team planning session - This is usually a day-long session that brings all of the team together to discuss what they need to achieve over the next twelve months. It usually starts with the team leader briefing the team on how their work aligns with the organizational strategy and outlining team goals for the year. Then the entire team discusses how they will achieve those goals between them.
  3. Team plan creation - After the team planning session, the team plan is written up into a formal document. This is a living document that you'll refer to regularly. Individual team members will use it to check their tasks, timelines, and KPIs. And team leaders will use it to check overall progress toward team goals.
  4. Team plan review - To make sure you're on target to achieve your goals, it's important to review progress regularly. You might want to do this every quarter with a designated review meeting. Or simply have 'Team plan review' as a standing item on your weekly or monthly meeting agendas.

Who's involved in team planning?

The key personnel to involve in team planning are:

The entire team

The entire team needs to be involved in team planning. We're serious. This isn't just a nice-to-have. It's essential every team member is part of the team planning process.

It helps team leaders to understand the resources available to them, and the skills and strengths they can call on. It also gives team leaders a realistic appraisal of whether their plans are achievable, by hearing from the people who actually do the work on a day-to-day basis.

It also helps individual team members to understand their important place in the overall plan and provides a sense of agency and ownership in the year to come.

The team leader/s

The team leader plays an essential role. They act as a conduit between senior management and strategy, and the team and operational delivery. On the day of the team planning session, they lead the conversation and ensure the day delivers what it needs to.

A senior manager

The team leader will need to engage with someone senior to them, to have those all-important discussions about strategic planning. Depending on your team structure and size, this may be a direct conversation with someone in the C-suite. Or it may be with an intermediate layer of management. Either way, you need someone senior to cascade strategic objectives down the chain of command until it reaches your team.

An external facilitator

An external facilitator can be helpful, especially if you are planning with a large team. Their professional expertise and knowledge of team planning techniques can help you create a more effective team plan than you might have on your own.

They can also be very valuable in team planning sessions. By managing the agenda and structure of the day, they free up the team leader to focus on engaging with their team.

When should I conduct team planning?

Team planning should ideally be conducted once a year and follow on from the delivery of the overarching organizational strategy. A team plan should cover the next six to twelve months only. Any longer than 12 months and you risk organizational priorities changing and your plan becoming irrelevant.

How often should I review my team plan?

You should review your team plan on a quarterly basis. This allows you to check progress against goals and correct your path if you're not going to achieve them.

It could be that your original team plan was over-optimistic in terms of delivery schedule or team capacity. Maybe you've been derailed by factors outside your control like a dependent project being delayed, budget being reassigned, or staff illness.

Reviewing your team plan lets you get ahead of these problems quickly before they derail your plan for the year.

Five elements of an effective team plan

There's no hard-and-fast template for team planning. You're free to create a plan that works for you and your team. However, there are key elements that you need to include.

Purpose

To be effective, your team needs to rally around a shared purpose. At the very least, this section should articulate how - operationally - your team's work fits into the wider organization. But, depending on your team culture, you might also want to talk about team vision and values. What does your team live to do? What makes them tick? How do they interact with others in the organization?

Strategic planning

The strategic plan section demonstrates the strategic alignment between your team and the business as a whole. You should reference the sections of the organizational strategy that your team will be supporting - and provide top-level information on the activity your team will take. These should be prioritized according to the impact they have on strategic objectives and commercial success.

Execution plan

This section is a detailed, task-based roadmap. It breaks the year of activity down into individual team projects. It will include information such as timetable, resources required, budget, KPIs, and more.

The execution plan can help identify interdependencies between projects and avoid clashes - such as competing demands on the same resources. Anticipating these in advance can help you prioritize resource allocation and avoid costly bottlenecks in the future.

An execution plan also helps with capacity planning - ie allows you to see if you have adequate resources to deliver future projects and plan accordingly.

Contingency planning

Contingency planning is an important element of team planning. It's about thinking 'if X, then Y'. It gives you the flexibility to restructure or reprioritize your plan if things change. Harvard Business Review found that 'if-then' planners are 300% more likely to achieve their goals than fixed planners. So build some flexibility into your team plan if you can.

For example, if one of your projects is dependent on a project from another team being delivered on time - and that project schedule slips - it's helpful to have another project you could allocate team members to, rather than have them idle and underutilized.

Tracking/metrics

Your team plan needs to outline how you'll track progress against the plan. This may just be at a team/project level. Or it may also look at individual team member performance too. It's important to be clear that this isn't intended to pressure or shame team members if their performance doesn't meet their KPIs. But to ensure that the plan is on track and - if not - to make relevant adjustments to correct its course.

6 tips for an effective team planning session

  1. Invite the right people - We've already discussed the importance of involving the right people in team planning, so you know you need to invite your entire team, team leader/s, and a senior manager. You might also want to use a facilitator on the day, as well as clerical support to take notes and document the outcomes.
  2. Set a strong agenda - Getting your whole team together is great. But it can easily descend into chaos. So make sure you have a strong agenda and stick to it. Remember the aim of the day is to capture your goals and plans for the rest of the year. So make sure you don't move on from any activity until you've got the information you need for writing your plan.
  3. Start positive - To get everyone in a good mindset, try starting the session with an exercise that highlights team positives. For example, get everyone to write down something they're grateful for about their team or workplace. Then everyone makes the paper into a ball and throws it to other people. Once everything is thoroughly mixed up, everyone picks a piece of paper to read out to the team.
  4. Create a safe space - The planning process may involve challenging conversations and it's important everyone feels safe to speak their mind. Make it clear that honesty and constructive feedback are essential and welcome. But be aware of - and have a plan to manage - 'squeaky wheels' to prevent them from dominating the dialog.
  5. Mix it up - Your planning session may involve breakout work in smaller groups. But 'group-think' can really undermine your planning process. It hampers ideas and innovation by limiting your team to things they already all know. Where possible, try to mix people up so they're not just talking to people they work with every day.
  6. Take a break - Make sure you give your team plenty of breaks. Tired teammates won't be as engaged or creative. Try not to overload the day or let it run too long either. It is better to have two shorter sessions than one that goes on too long.

Team planning software and apps

If you've been searching 'team resource planning template Excel', stop. Do yourself a favor and invest in a fit-for-purpose team planning tool instead.

Excel isn't going to provide the tools you need to create, track and manage your team plan effectively. Whereas dedicated team planning software will (and all from an intuitive dashboard you'll love to use).

For example, software like Runn includes tools and automation to:

  • see and understand the skills and availability of team members
  • group employees into teams and assign projects
  • track workload, set milestones, and monitor progress
  • plan capacity for future projects and request required resources
  • identify bottlenecks and reassign resources with a click

Doesn't that sound better than sheets and cells and endless copy-and-pasting?

Team planning: a nuisance or a necessity?

Hopefully we’ve made a strong case for introducing team planning in your organization. As the old saying goes ‘Fail to plan and you plan to fail’. That’s why high-performing teams use proven techniques - like team planning, resource planning, capacity planning, project management, portfolio management and more - to apply structure, focus, and metrics to their work. 

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